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8 Lessons in Entrepreneurship From the Greatest Inventor of All Time

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October 21, 2020 8 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you’ve ever read , The Odyssey or any traditional folk tale, you’ll be familiar with the hero’s journey. They all (and countless others) follow the same template. It was literature professor who, in 1949, published the book that described and analyzed this structure: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book has inspired writers across a range of genres including films, novels, plays and gaming. 

In my new book, The Entrepreneur Journey, A Strategic Blueprint for Market Domination, I explore the idea that the mythological hero journey mapped out by Campbell might also provide a framework for the journey undertaken by entrepreneurs

To illustrate the different phases in the entrepreneur’s journey, I have started each chapter with an episode from the life of one of the most prolific innovators of all time, . Edison will forever be associated with the phrase “a light bulb moment,” a flash of blinding intuition that apparently comes out of nowhere, but the reality was very different. I hope these stories will highlight the complexities behind his invention, the teamwork and effective delegation needed, the extent of collaboration, the detailed planning and ceaseless cycles of testing and improvement.

Related: 10 Thomas Edison Quotes to Inspire and Motivate You

According to Campbell, there are 17 steps on the hero’s journey. I have narrowed these down to eight.

Sensing

The journey starts when the entrepreneur, immersed in the world sensing their surroundings, is visited by inspiration and feels an urge to make a change. This call prompts a step away from everyday life, whatever the form of inspiration. For Edison, this came when he visited inventor William Wallace’s workshop in Ansonia, Connecticut, and saw his Telemachon, or new dynamo. It was at that moment he saw the solution to the problem of developing a system to supply cheap, abundant electric light.

Expressing

Articulating this idea, expressing it, so it can be shared and understood by others takes a certain amount of dedication and even courage, particularly if the entrepreneur is operating in an environment in which individualism and personal growth are not prized. In Edison’s case, this meant returning to his own workshop at Menlo Park and inspiring his own muckers to invest in the project. This took conviction and passion, daring and an enduring sense of clarity and purpose

Reorienting

Those who have decided to proceed to the otherworld — the external world of the collective and teamwork — face their first initiation: crossing the threshold from the second phase to the third to present their idea to a group of peers such as investors, programmers and engineers. It is here that the entrepreneur must partner up with these collaborators, and they all need to reorient themselves to work together harmoniously and embark on the adventure of collaborative work and building the product. In this context, Edison’s habit of leaving his notebooks lying around constituted an open invitation to all his workers to engage with his ideas and give him their honest opinion. He also fostered collaboration by staying up all night socializing with his colleagues and workers.

Planning

Now the team must come to a decision as to what exactly they are going to build and bring to market and how they are going to achieve that. They must draw up the best plan together: There are many considerations (market forces and the nature of the competition) to take into account, and the task can be much tougher than they expect, especially if delays and internal conflict hinder progress. The entrepreneur might be tempted to abandon their internal call and initial purpose and proceed to build a product that does not resonate with their needs.

For Edison to complete his task, he was going to have to spend most of the little money he had leftover from the initial investment on the latest equipment. Menlo Park had to be the most comprehensive facility in the world for conducting electrical research. He was also going to have to hire new staff: men skilled in the arts of machining and glass blowing. The laboratory would now be a special-purpose facility. As Edison explained to his employee Theodore Puskas (who would go onto invent the world’s first telephone exchange), Menlo Park was going to need “all the means to set up and test more deliberately every point of the electric light, so as to be able to meet and answer or obviate every objection before showing the light to the public, or offering it for sale either in this country or Europe.”

Developing

With their plan in hand, the team now starts to execute and actually create a system in the physical world, developing this system in the form of a service or product. There are threats to overcome — dragons to be slain — at this stage: tight budgets, unexpected setbacks, quality maintenance and compliance with legislation. Many iterations might be needed at this stage to emerge triumphant. But if you get through this stage, you’ll have passed the point of no return. In theory, there is always an option to pull back, but you may, as in the hero’s journey, find that you have gone too far to be able to abandon the quest and must see it through. Within two weeks of creating a miracle light filament that could burn for 13-and-a-half hours, Edison and his team had improved on this design and applied for a patent. It was not until several months after the patent was granted, the following year, that they came up with a bulb capable of lasting 1,200 hours. 

Now the work to develop a whole system — dynamo, lamps, connecting wires — could really begin. Again, Edison quite spontaneously adopted an approach entirely consistent with modern management in dividing the work between a number of multi-functional teams, each with its own goals, that briefed him on their progress every evening.

Function

The prize as we move into the next stage is a product or system that is proven, through vigorous testing and experimentation, to function — an offering robust enough to fulfill the expectations, and indeed the aspirations, of those who use it. When John Kreusi, Edison’s chief machinist, remarked on the sheer quantity of the offers to build power stations that they were receiving, Edison looked at him and said “Do nothing. We’re not ready yet. We have carried out an experiment, that’s all. Yes, it was successful and the concept is there. We showed that. But that is not enough for a project such as this. We have to test every part of this system — not just for faults and improvements but for longevity. It has been shown to work, but we have to show it functions — not just once, but over a long period of time. If there’s a failure in the system we must discover it before anyone else does.”

Engage

It’s time to take your product to market, and there you will need to engage with potential users to make them aware that your offering can solve their problem — or even a problem they weren’t aware they had. (Bear in mind that the entrepreneur might still be pursued by guardians from the other world, in the form of revised regulation, for example, which might require a retreat to an earlier stage.) Developing your networks is a worthwhile activity, giving you far greater access to information, expertise and maybe even partnership. You will have a much better chance of success if you surround yourself with the right people from the beginning, such as marketers who will actively want to partner with you.

Although the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881 might have been an international scientific and trade conference rather than a marketing one, the presence of Edison’s team there enabled him to enrich his networks and size up the opposition.

Feedback

Finally, the entrepreneur will begin to receive feedback from the users — some positive, confirming that they have made the right decisions; some critical, signaling the need for improvement. As in a video game where you pass to the next level, the journey begins again, this time with new challenges, but with the benefit of hindsight. 

When Edison was presented with complaints from customers who were more than a mile from his stations and so unable to enjoy the benefits of his lighting system, he listened and went back to the drawing board and invented the three-wire system. In researching Edison’s story I was struck by the fact that although more than a century has passed since his Edison Illuminating Company was formed, the entrepreneur journey itself has not changed much.

Related: 8 Facts to Amaze and Inspire On Thomas Edison’s Birthday

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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